Both exciting and humbling

I am looking around at the people here with me at JFK airport, all of us waiting for our flights. Folks are sitting around, eating, chatting, looking at their phones, essentially waiting for the next thing to happen.

Watching this scene, some part of my mind is thinking about the fact that we have not, in any meaningful way, evolved biologically as a species in the 30,000 or so years since the Cro-Magnon era, when people were already creating the earliest known virtual realities, in the form of cave paintings.

On the one hand, we are rapidly evolving as a species in the sense that each generation is handing to the next ever new and exciting forms of technology-enabled virtual tools: Writing, agriculture, fast transportation, theater and cinema, computers, the Web, SmartPhones, wearables, and whatever comes after that, as marvelous as they may be, are all extrinsic to our essentially unchanged biological selves.

I find it significant that none of this is due to a biological shift. If you were to take a typical Cro-Magnon child and place her in a modern environment, she would be just as likely to thrive in today’s technologically evolved world as any child born into the 21st century.

To me, that is both exciting and humbling.

Welcome to the new politics

This time Trump is making a rather elaborate and careful point of making sure that we know he is lying. That is, in fact, the main purpose of the very particular way he fired FBI Director Comey.

To be precise: Trump wants to make sure we know, without any doubt, that the firing was the direct result of the FBI Director asking for more resources to look into the Trump-Russia connection less than a week ago. And he also wants us to know that he can give a ridiculous reason for the firing — a “justification” so absurd and self-contradictory that nobody in their right mind would believe it — and still get away with it.

This is Trump as Tony Soprano with the baseball bat. His message is clear: I can swing this bat any time I want and smash the heads of my enemies. And there is nothing any of you can do about it. You are all my bitches now.

Welcome to the new politics.

An actual patriot

We don’t seem to have too many patriots in the U.S. these days. Yet today I read about recent statements by Stephen Colbert that, for once, give me hope for my country.

It takes a lot of courage to stand up to a rapacious conman who is systematically destroying your country from within, who is pushing hateful policies guaranteed to cause terrible suffering and tragedy for millions of hard working citizens, and for the worst of all possible reasons: Simply to line his own pockets with cash.

As an American, I am proud of Stephen Colbert for his courage, his unflinching willingness to expose villainy and vile behavior, and for his unwillingness to pretend to show respect to a shameful public figure who has taken crudity, hate-mongering, offensiveness and downright disgusting behavior to a new level.

Stephen Colbert should be given a Medal of Freedom for his valuable service to our country. Unfortunately, we will first need to wait until our country has an actual President to pin it on him.

Splendid isolation

I give a lot of credit to airline flight attendants in coach class. They have a very stressful job, and are dealing with a lot of grumpy people. In my experience, flight attendants in coach have been very professional and expert at dealing with a situation that isn’t pleasant for anybody.

But I must say that my flight from Frankfurt to NY had one perk: I got an enormous amount of work done. Lufthansa’s policy of providing an electric outlet at every seat didn’t hurt. And the fact that I had an aisle seat in a half empty plane didn’t hurt either.

The delight of finding an empty seat next to you in coach class never gets old. Sure, you are still uncomfortable, but you are not actually suffering.

And on this flight, that feeling of delight fueled a surge of creative energy. For six hours it was just me and my trusty MacBook computer, working happily together in splendid isolation.

Today, despite my jet lag, I am still riding that wave of creative energy, and still getting loads of work done. With any luck, I’ll be able to ride this wave all the way to the next flight.

A moment of sanity

The world experienced a moment of sanity, as a sane, articulate centrist candidate, who actually expressed something of substance about the issues during debates, won an election against the creepy right wing extremist. I was beginning to think that only happens in Canada.

Of course here in America we’ve moved beyond such prosaic concepts as electing a sane, articulate centrist candidate, who actually expresses something of substance about the issues during debates. Perhaps because we have our own special brand of creepy right wing extremists.

I guess everyone has a moral line they won’t cross to win an election, even Marine Le Pen. Sure, her party has ties to white supremacists and still carries the stink of Vichy, and sure, she has a loyal following among vocal antisemites, racists and xenophobes. But she never bragged about grabbing pussy.

Maybe that would have gotten her more of the vote. Apparently that’s what it takes for creepy right wing extremists to get elected these days.

When we all change, the change is invisible

I saw a really spooky scifi/horror movie recently in which everybody in the world starts to change in a deeply disturbing way. I guess you could say it’s a sort of variation on Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

The characters spend much the time in a complete panic. Fear, recrimination, despair, paranoia — all of these negative emotions come bubbling up to the surface like a volcano.

But then at the end, after the change is complete, everyone feels fine again. and nobody notices anything amiss. After all, everybody is now normal.

I thought of this movie when I listened yesterday to Philippe Quéau speak about virtual reality at the FMX conference. He argued, from an anthropological perspective, that for us to understand the meaning of a mode of communication such as VR, we need to understand how it changes us.

Part of his point was that “being normal” is the thing that is most invisible to us. Yet it is not in any way fixed.

Each new technological advancement changes the definition of what it means to be normal. Yet after the change is complete, most people lose the ability to notice that anything has changed. They simply feel normal.

Standing outside of the assumption of normalcy to look at how a technology changes us does not make you a luddite. Yet the moment you start doing that, a lot of people wrongly assume that you are anti-technology.

The ability to take such a critical view — to not make the mistake of thinking that what feels normal is an indication of absolute truth — is essential. Without it, we may find ourselves very unhappy with the future that we are helping to create.

The real Wolverine

Even at a very classy conference such at FMX, there are some delighfully cheesy moments. One occurred this evening, as we were all gathering for the speakers’ dinner.

The conference organizers had arranged a marvelously weird photo-op for us. On a red carpet, in front of a big “FMX” sign, were local actors dressed as Captain America, Wolverine, and other fantasy figures out of popular culture.

The concept was that speakers on their way into the dinner could have their photo taken in the company of these esteemed fictional personages. I loved the idea, yet something about it seemed a little off. But what?

Then I had it. I turned to a colleague and said “That’s not the real Wolverine. That’s only somebody paying Wolverine.”

I suddenly realized that my colleague was just staring at me, and I realized the absurdity of what I had just said. “You know,” I added, “I can’t figure out what’s weirder — that scene on the red carpet or the thing I just told you.”

Facial expressions in movies

My friend Chris Landreth, the great computer animator, has pointed out that facial expressions in film acting do not follow obvious rules. Of course there is the Kuleshov effect (you could look it up), but it goes beyond that.

Chris has shown, for example, still frames from Citizen Kane, at a moment when Orson Welles’ character is flying into a murderous rage, and just about to trash a room. If you look at his face, Welles’ expression in that scene, counter to naive intuition, is completely serene.

The theory that Chris puts forward is that in fact John Foster Kane has, at that moment, accepted that he will now act out his deepest anger and need for destruction, and so he is actually in a state of acceptance and balance. It is part of Welles’ genius that he understood this, and underplayed the moment the way he did, rather than giving in to a fit of florid overacting.

Thinking about this now, I am curious to know what other movie scenes have this property? What moments from films portray a character in a state of extreme emotion, but where in fact the actor’s expression appears perfectly calm and serene?

Gallows humor

I t’s possible that having a madman in the Whitehouse just itching to start a war has affected the sense of humor of my friends and myself.

Today I will be traveling on a flight to Europe to attend the wonderful FMX conference in Stuttgart. A friend texted to wish me a safe flight.

Well actually, what she texted was: “Safe travels, don’t die.”

I promptly texted back: “Excellent advice! If I neglect to follow it, I will do my best to let you know.”